Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Doing What Comes Naturally During a Makeover

While Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter's announcement that he was switching from the Republicans to the Democrats may have gratified the latter and upset the former, no one should have been surprised by it. Historically, party switching is common, indeed inevitable at times of party realignment.
Spurred by the rise of a new large dynamic generation and the emergence of a new communication technology, realignments occur about every four decades in U.S. politics. The most recent one began with the election of Barack Obama last November. These large political makeovers normally enthrone a new dominant national party. Beneath the surface, realignments are characterized by major shifts in the voting coalitions that support the two parties. Demographic groups and regions move to and fro between the parties.
These demographic shifts, and the attendant ideological solidification of the two parties, leave some politicians, like Senator Specter, who no longer represent their party's mainstream thinking, as outliers and essentially marooned. Faced with the prospect of almost certain defeat by a reduced and much more conservative base in next year's Pennsylvania GOP senate primary, the politically moderate Specter made the only rational choice he could and left the Republican Party.
The last previous realignment, which began with election of Richard Nixon in 1968, saw the movement of numerous Democrats, primarily Southerners, to the Republicans. Starting with Strom Thurmond and continuing through Richard Shelby, these conservative Democrats, along with many of their constituents, saw the GOP as a more comfortable political home. But, the movement between the parties wasn't only Southern, nor was it only in one direction. Conservative Colorado Democratic Senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell became a Republican and liberal Republicans like New York's John Lindsay and Don Riegle of Michigan went the other way.
If history is any guide, Arlen Specter's move from the Republican to the Democratic Party will not be the last during the next several years. Other moderate Republicans, most likely from New England, the Northeast, and the upper Midwest, will almost certainly join him. At some point, it is also probable that a smaller number of conservative Democrats, who feel uncomfortable or politically threatened by President Obama's expansion of the federal government, will find the GOP more compatible with their beliefs and fortunes. Just as the baseball offseason is a time for trading players, a political realignment leads to changes in the rosters of the two parties. Let the switching begin.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Obama's Millennial Moment

In a ceremony fraught with political and generational symbolism, President Barack Obama will sign the aptly named “Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education” (GIVE) Act at a White House ceremony on April 21, capping his campaign promise to ask Americans to reinvigorate their country through community service. GIVE represents a major redemption of candidate Obama’s promise to offer his most loyal and largest constituency, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, a chance to serve their country at the community level and in return earn assistance with the cost of their college education.
Not everyone is ready to join hands and sing the praises of the concept, however. While GIVE enjoyed bi-partisan sponsorship in both the Senate and the House, that didn’t prevent a majority of Republicans from voting against the bill on final passage. They complained that the bill was “too expensive” and would crowd out pure volunteer work with program participants receiving a modicum of financial support for their efforts from the Federal Government. In the House, 149 of 175 Republicans voted “no,” joined by 19 of their colleagues in the Senate, including the party's two top leaders. With all Democrats voting in favor of GIVE, the core of the Republican’s “Just say no” caucus demonstrated how out of touch with the Millennial Generation they are.
Of those Republicans expressing their opposition in the Senate, only one, John Ensign of Nevada, was from a state that Obama carried. Even though both Republican Senators from such bright red states as Utah, Georgia and Mississippi could see the potential value of increasing the number of volunteers and college students in the country’s civic life, both GOP Senators from South Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Idaho made it clear that there were no circumstances under which their hostility to government could be softened by the merits of a patriotic cause.
As Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina put it on his website, "We need to recognize that this bill does represent a lot of what's wrong with our federal government today.... civil society works, because it is everything that government is not. It's small, it's personal, it's responsible, it's accountable.” And Louisiana Senator David Vitter spuriously argued, “This new federal bureaucracy would, in effect, politicize charitable activity around the country." Echoing Governor Sarah Palin’s horribly off key comment at her party’s convention last August that “the world isn’t a community and it doesn’t need an organizer,” these Republicans demonstrated just how out of touch they are with Millennial thinking.
Meanwhile, President Obama’s signature initiative is drawing Millennials ever closer to his political agenda. Chris Golden and Nick Troiano, Millennial co-founders of plan on launching a social network designed to connect volunteers and their experiences to others with similar interests as soon as the legislation creates a market for such sharing and support. Two Millennials who served a term in the New Hampshire legislature as they began their college careers, Andrew Edwards and Jeff Fontas, are now anxious to play “a central role in getting a ‘Spirit of Service’ off the ground” as their next step in a career of civic involvement. These are just two examples of Millennials deep desire to serve.
Already the shift toward civic involvement by this new generation, in contrast to its Generation X predecessors, has doubled the proportion of 16-24 year olds serving in the nation’s existing volunteer corps. Ninety-four -percent of Millennials believes community service is an effective way to solve problems at the local level and 85-percent thinks that is true for national problems as well. CIRCLE, an organization devoted to tracking the interests of Millennials in serving their country, points out that the second most important factor, other than having time, “in deciding whether or not to get involved in an activity is the impact that they [Millennials] think it will yield.” With the elevated profile such activities will enjoy under provisions of the GIVE Act, it is not too difficult to imagine Millennials taking up over 80,000 of the 250,000 volunteer slots that will be made available under GIVE’s provisions—greater than the number of all Americans currently serving their country’s communities.
At the signing ceremony the President will be joined by many other equally committed sponsors of the concept of national service, including Senator Edward Kennedy in honor of whom the final legislation was named "The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, to celebrate the country’s embrace of this new ethos of service. While Millennials across the country join with them to celebrate this historic change in America’s behavior, Republicans will be left, once again, locked in the dogmas of their past, unable to imagine a country where government encourages private initiative and the nation is far better off for it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Everybody's Wrong But us

Conservative columnist, Michael Gerson, in the Washington Post, and then Karl Rove in the Wall Street journal cited a recent Pew Research Center poll, to claim that the "polarization" between Democrats and Republicans in their approval of President Barack Obama's performance is greater than for any other president in surveys stretching back to the early days of the Nixon administration But their interpretation of the poll's results are dead wrong.

In the Pew survey a nearly unanimous 88-percent of Democratic identifiers, as opposed to a scant 27-percent of Republicans, approved of the president's performance, a gap of 61-percentage points. Independents (57% approve) fall precisely between the Democrats and Republicans. Overall, in that survey, 59-percent of all Americans approved of the job the president was doing, a number that rose slightly (to 61%) in the most recent Pew survey, conducted in the wake of Obama's European trip.

The reason for this polarized electorate however is not the actions of President Obama but the events of last year which has brought America into a new civic era, a turning point that has occurred roughly every eighty years throughout American history. Each time the country enters a civic era there is a rise in partisan identifications, a more coherent ideological divide between the two parties, and an increase in straight ticket voting. Even Gerson noted that polarization might be a good thing when it is a "decisive" and "ambitious" president like Franklin D. Roosevelt who is doing the polarizing to achieve overriding national goals. Despite his attempts to blame Obama for our current level of partisan divide, the truth is that such a division is inevitable in a civic era.
The polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the Pew and every other survey has much less to do with President Obama's personal and political style than it does with the inability of his own Republican Party to adapt to this new era. From the earliest Pew survey conducted in 1989, the first year of George H.W. Bush's administration, through 2005, there was near parity in the distribution of party identifiers within the electorate; no more than three or four percentage points ever separated the Democrats from the Republicans. By contrast, since 2006 the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats has risen significantly while the number saying they are Republican has fallen. In the most recent Pew study, conducted early this month, the Democrats held a clear 52% to 35% lead over the Republicans in party ID, a 13-percentage point shift toward the Democratic Party since 2004. And, only 21-percent of American voters are "pure" Republicans, a group that consists only of those willing to call themselves Republicans and does not include independents that say they lean toward the GOP. This is the smallest number of "pure" partisans for either party in any survey ever conducted by Pew.
Quite simply, the GOP has become an ever-declining corps of conservative true believers. A recent Frank N. Magid Associates survey indicates that while Democratic identifiers are almost evenly divided between liberals or progressives (45%) and moderates (42%), among Republicans, conservatives outnumber moderates by more than 2:1 (61% vs. 26%).
As a result, Republicans see things very differently than almost everyone else. The latest Daily Kos weekly tracking poll, for example, indicates that more than two-thirds of Americans (67%) have a favorable opinion of President Obama. In that poll at least sixty percent of both women and men and all age and ethnic groups have a positive impression of the president. Only among Republicans (23%) and, in the geographic center of the GOP, the South, (41%), is only a minority favorable toward Obama.
Given the distance of the Republican Party from the current American political mainstream, and the increased sense of party loyalty felt by many Americans, it shouldn't be surprising that most of the public is reticent to see President Obama compromise with Republicans on important public policy questions as Gerson suggests. In a March CBS/New York Times poll, a clear majority (56%) wanted President Obama to pursue the policies he promised in the campaign rather than working in a bipartisan way with Republicans (39%). An even larger majority (79%) wanted Congressional Republicans to work in a bipartisan way with the President rather than sticking to Republican policies.
By refusing to do so, it is the Republicans and not Barack Obama who are now polarizing American politics and, as a result, it is they who are polarized from most of their fellow citizens as well.
If Republicans truly want to see bipartisan policy making they will have to retreat from their position as a corporal's guard on the right wing of American politics and join the rest of the country in seeking real solutions to the major issues facing the United States at the dawn of the 21st Century.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A New Generation Shapes a New Era

During the past couple of weeks the Washington media and political establishment have focused on such matters of crucial and lasting importance as President Barack Obama's possible "overexposure," whether he showed suitable affect by chuckling during a TV interview in a time of severe economic difficulty, and just when he became angry about the bonuses received by AIG executives. To be fair, the focus on trivialities is bipartisan. We have also been treated to several days of discussion about whether conservatives Laura Ingram and Ann Coulter or moderate Meaghan McCain have the appropriate body shape for Republican women.
Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, America's demography is steadily and quietly changing in a way that will fundamentally reshape the country for decades to come. A new generation, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003), is coming of age to makeover or realign U.S. politics. The approximately 95 million Millennials compromise the largest American generation in history. There are now around 17 million more Millennials alive than there are Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), the previously largest generation, and 27 million more Millennials than members of Generation X (born 1965-1981), the relatively small generation between the Boomers and Millennials.
While about 4.5 million Millennials have been reaching voting age every year since 2000, the generation didn't enter the electorate in large enough numbers to make a real difference until 2008. And make a difference it did. Millennials were decisive in securing the Democratic presidential nomination for Barack Obama. In November, Millennials supported Obama by a greater than 2:1 margin over John McCain, accounting for 80-percent of his popular vote margin and turning what would have been a squeaker into a decisive victory.
But the 2008 election was barely the tip of the Millennial iceberg. Important as they were a year ago, not even half (41%) of Millennials were eligible to vote and they accounted for less than a fifth (17%) of the voting age population in 2008. A bare majority of Millennials will be eligible in 2010. Close to two-thirds of them (61%), representing a quarter of the electorate will be able to vote when President Obama runs for reelection in 2012. By 2016, eight in ten Millennials will be eligible to vote and they will comprise 30-percent of the electorate. In 2020, when virtually all Millennials will be old enough to vote, they will account for more than a third of the electorate (36%). With numbers like these, the Millennial Generation will be in position to dominate U.S. elections and politics for decades to come.
However, the sheer size of the Millennial Generation is only part of the equation. If it were as sharply divided in politics as America's last large generation, the Baby Boomers, the potential impact of the Millennial Generation would be greatly minimized. But, Millennials are anything but divided.
Democrats now hold nearly a 2:1 edge in party identification over Republicans (55% vs. 30%) among Millennials. Moreover, there is no evidence that the Democratic proclivities of Millennials have in any way lessened since the inauguration of Barack Obama. The latest Daily Kos tracking survey indicates that clear majorities of Millennials have favorable opinions of Barack Obama (80%) and the Democratic Party (62%). By contrast, only 10-percent of them have a positive opinion of the GOP. Decades of voting behavior and public opinion research tell us that once identifications and attitudes like these are formed in early adulthood, they almost invariably remain constant throughout the lives of individuals and generations.
So while Washington continues to focus on the gotcha trivia of a past era, the demographic tectonic plates that underlie, shape and define American politics are shifting. Perhaps, with luck, the inside-the-Beltway political community will someday notice the change that's going on around it. But, if history is any guide, it will likely take the arrival of a new generation in the corridors of power to ratify in Washington the transformation that is sweeping across the rest of America.